Paul Krugman, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Bob Strong/Mark Kauzlarich/Photo montage by Salon)

Dissecting Paul Krugman's Bernie backlash: Being a Sanders skeptic doesn't make you a hack

America's most influential pundit has been critical of the Vermont socialist. Here's why that's so encouraging

Elias Isquith
January 23, 2016 6:00PM (UTC)

As you may have heard by now, New York Times columnist, Nobel Prize-winning economist and Salon mainstay Paul Krugman is earning himself a reputation of sorts as a Bernie Sanders skeptic.

His latest column is the most sustained critique of the Vermont senator's presidential campaign we've seen from him yet, it's true. But Krugman's been looking askance at Sanders' campaign for a while now, and his gripe — that Sanders' campaign promises are unrealistic on both political and policy grounds —  has been consistent throughout.


As you might imagine, though, many left-wing tweeters couldn't care less about Krugman's earnestness. They think he's just another elite wagon-circler. They're pissed:

That last tweet links to this post from Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. It's a series of quotes from center-left pundits and politicians, all of whom express their support — in the abstract — for a single-payer model of national health insurance. The most recent quote is from 2011. The oldest is from 2003. Except for a short note at the top, claiming the post is an example of "res ipsa loquitur," Smith herself provides no commentary or analysis.

As you probably guessed when you saw the list of tweets, I'm going to ask you to allow me to indulge in a bit of a generalization. Namely, that a lot of Krugman's left-wing critics think he's somehow changing his tune. They're wrong, and I'll explain why in a moment. But first I'll take a swipe at re-creating their (quite reasonable) thought process.


They remember how critical Krugman was of candidate Obama in the 2008 primary; and they remember that he was the "anti-Obama" during the president's first few years in office. But they also remember that Krugman ultimately came to write an influential Rolling Stone piece in the president's defense. They believe that the Democratic Party establishment is in the tank for Hillary Clinton, Sanders' chief opponent. They figure Krugman, now firmly back in the establishment's clutches, is following suit.

Again, it's not a wild or outrageous narrative. It doesn't require imagining Krugman is part of a coordinated campaign, devised in some dark and shadowy conference room — perhaps the one the Springfield Republican Party uses — with elevating Clinton, and thwarting Sanders, as its goal. But it's still wrong; and it misremembers (or misrepresents) not only Krugman's positions in the past and today, but also, by proxy, the position of Sanders-skeptic lefties in general.

But before I attempt to expand this in a way that makes it relevant to people besides Paul Krugman and Angry Person On Twitter, let's start with Mr. Nobel Prize-winner and why charges of hypocrisy or selling out are mistaken.


To be blunt, there is no contradiction in thinking single-payer is a better model while simultaneously thinking that making it a central part of the 2016 presidential campaign is tilting at windmills. Human beings are capable of wishing the world were a certain way but recognizing it's another way — and acting accordingly. This is not something that only unprincipled, hack, establishment, D.C. insider, yadda-yadda-yadda villains do. It's a thing that people do. Bernie "reparations are too divisive" Sanders has done it before. I'd imagine that, before this campaign is over, he'll do it again.

The second attack — that Krugman started to like Obama only once the latter had become a part of the establishment himself — is nearly as off the mark. It's true that Krugman has become much more friendly toward Obama over the past eight or so years. I remember well how he was one of the few liberals with the temerity to grumble about parliamentary trench warfare and Republican intransigence when everyone else just wanted to drift in the warm waters of Hope and Change. But the reason Krugman is now one of Obama's chief defenders isn't because he changed. It's because Obama did.


Krugman is a wonk. He likes policy. It's what he writes about and it's what he cares about. Even his most scathing attacks on Republicans or the conservative movement are, at heart, the lashing-out of a policy nerd scorned. He doesn't dislike and fear the modern Republican Party because it is conservative. He dislikes and fears it because, he believes, it is utterly indifferent to empiricism and good policy. (Such a world, after all, renders a technocrat-expert like Krugman rather superfluous!)

Obama, too, is a wonk. But when he was first running to be president in 2008, that's not the side of his political identity he emphasized. His campaign wasn't about policy. It was about ... well, whatever you wanted it to be, really. That was the genius of it, to some extent. It was the campaign equivalent of a phrase Obama once used to describe himself: a "blank screen." But by the time Obama was running for reelection — and certainly by the time Krugman's Rolling Stone piece was published — that was no longer the case. Obama had a record; he'd made compromises; he'd revealed his priorities.

He didn't talk about romantic ideals like change and community and hope and faith. He talked about the individual mandate, the stimulus, drone strikes, and Dodd-Frank. He spent more of his time tamping down expectations, making excuses for his failures or half-measures. God only knows how often he used that line about how we can't make the perfect the enemy of the good. Sometimes, Krugman thought, Obama trimmed his sails too soon. Still, even if he thought the stimulus was too small, he was making a policy argument. The White House said it was big enough; Krugman said it wasn't.


That is the Obama Krugman likes. That is the Obama Krugman sees as worth defending. It's not the Obama who let Democratic primary voters fool themselves into pretending he wasn't a neoliberal; the one who talked about halting the rise of the oceans, caring for the sick, ending a war or trying to do what the special interests say cannot be done. It wasn't the young guy unlike anyone we've ever seen before that got Krugman excited. It was the weathered president whose record often resembled what you might expect from a third-term Bill Clinton.

But unfortunately for Krugman's Twitter feed, that is most decidedly not the Obama that some people see right now in Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, Sanders' campaign, like the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon that preceded it, is in part a response to that Obama — more specifically, a response from those who found him wanting. It's a campaign that, as Sanders himself, to his credit, always says, is much more about launching a "political revolution" than getting the sausage made in Congress. It's more about moving the Overton Window to the left than getting a bill out of committee.

Which is fine! Good, even! The tension that can arise between those who differ on strategy but share the same goals, broadly conceived, is often productive. One of the things that makes politics intoxicating and soul-crushing in equal measure is the difficulty of knowing the right course for the present moment. And it's genuinely hard to tell if the grass-roots power that's grown and developed throughout the Obama years is ready to be channeled into something more mainstream. Clinton people will say it isn't, and that the risks are too high. Sanders people will say it's worth a shot, and that time is running out.


Yes, this makes the debates between Democrats, liberals and leftists more heated than they might be otherwise. But it makes those lucky enough to spend their time arguing about such things smarter, too. And when a political group mistakes silence for consensus, it can be dangerous — for them and the country, both. So this is not a squabble we should discourage. At the same time, though, we shouldn't let the discussion get too mean or too stupid. You don't have to be a clueless and privileged bro to support Bernie Sanders; and not everyone who supports Clinton is a hollow apparatchik.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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